The Bay of Pigs - 50 years on

Fifty years ago, Cuba defeated a US-backed invading force at the Bay of Pigs. It marked the ‘first defeat of imperialism in America’, and for the Cuban people, the beginning of half a century of heroic defence of their revolution
“the mercenaries came well organized, well armed and well supported. What they lacked was a just cause to defend. That is why they did not fight with the same passion, courage, conviction, valour, firmness, bravery and spirit of victory as did the revolutionary forces”.    
Cuban General José Ramón Fernández (1999)
On 15 April 1961 – simultaneous air strikes were launched against three airfields in Cuba with the aim of incapacitating the island and eliminating the possibility of an effective Cuban defence against impending invasion. The early assault killed 7 Cubans and destroyed two planes. The invasion was defeated within 72 hours and 1,180 members of the invading mercenary Brigade 2506 were captured.  In total, over 150 Cubans lost their lives fighting an invading force trained, coordinated and funded by the United States.  The Bay of Pigs – or Playa Girón as Cubans call it – marked a watershed in US-Cuban relations and billboards at Playa Girón remind visitors of ‘The First Defeat of Imperialism in America’. 

Playa Girón can be viewed neither in isolation nor as the original counter-revolutionary act against the Cuban revolution. It is part of an ongoing narrative of American aggression and represents the culmination of a powerful campaign of sabotage and terrorism launched by the CIA in 1959. Bombs were laid, letter boxes blown up, water mains destroyed and sugar and tobacco plantations were set alight.

Cuba militia mobilised during the invasion
Playa Girón was a project inherited by President Kennedy from his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower. Kennedy was hamstrung because his electoral campaign against Nixon was dominated by fierce interventionist rhetoric. In 1960 he evoked memory of the Monroe Doctrine by declaring he would “not let the Soviet Union turn Cuba into its base in the Caribbean”. However, now in office, Kennedy feared that overt US involvement could provoke full-scale war with the USSR.

The CIA’s failure to provoke widespread rebellion through terrorism and sabotage prompted a shift in US strategy from fermenting insurrection to coordinating invasion. This was based on a four point plan inspired by the model of indirect US involvement in Guatemala against Jacobo Árbenz. The programme involved the establishment of a political entity outside Cuba aimed at encouraging the formation of counter-revolutionary groups; the formation of a counter-revolutionary front on the island under CIA influence and the training of paramilitary forces to infiltrate the country and improve underground operations. All this would be underpinned by a pervasive propaganda offensive against the Castro government.

Arming the people 
 The psychological impact of a concerted propaganda onslaught was central to Washington’s strategy for success. Radio stations such as Radio Free Cuba and Radio Swan were established by the CIA and funded by adverts for large corporations like Coca-Cola, Colgate, Pan American and Good Year. In October 1960, Radio Swan ran a feature – corroborated by falsified documentation – declaring that the revolutionary government planned to seize all children and send them to Russia. This fabrication was reinforced by the US-sponsored Operation Peter Pan which, in partnership with the Cuban Church, removed 14,000 children from their families within Cuba. This severely discredited the Church within Cuba and typifies the extant misinformation which contaminates the Western view of Cuba and is exacerbated by the ancestors of Radio Swan – such as Radio and Televisión Martí – which continue to regurgitate lies about Cuba. 

Victory in Cuba required the US-backed mercenaries to hold Playa Girón long enough to declare a provisional government, gain international recognition and appeal for direct military invention from the United States. The primary assault was to be supplemented by small troop incursions in various places throughout Cuba and, if necessary, would be buttressed by the US air force. The dissident government – headed by former Cuban Prime Minister José Miró Cadona – was known as the Revolutionary Council or, as Castro preferred, the Council of Worms, and the tactics employed bear striking resemblance to those used during the failed coup against Hugo Chávez.  As with the coup against Chávez, however, history has resoundingly shown that the imperialist offensive was an unmitigated disaster.

José Ramón Fernández
Popular Western accounts attribute American failure to US mistakes and deficiencies including the failure of diversionary paratroopers to land elsewhere; Kennedy’s decision to reduce exile-piloted air cover and delay the use of US planes; personal clashes between the President, senior advisors and the CIA; and an ignorance of local geography.  All of these appraisals ignore a number of key factors including the actions of Cuban military leaders, the achievements of the revolution and an ability to mobilise popular support. As Cuban General José Ramón Fernández declared in 1999, “the mercenaries came well organized, well armed and well supported. What they lacked was a just cause to defend. That is why they did not fight with the same passion, courage, conviction, valour, firmness, bravery and spirit of victory as did the revolutionary forces”. In this sense, victory can only be understood as a product of the revolution.

Bay of Pigs Museum Playa Girón
Fidel Castro’s military leadership, forged during the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra, was crucial in ensuring Cuban victory. Castro knew Playa Girón intimately and had been planning against a foreign invasion since the revolution’s triumph. Landing points throughout the island were heavily fortified whilst Castro – wishing to avoid the same fate as Nasser in Egypt – had dispersed and camouflaged his few planes. Any out-of-service aeroplanes were grouped together and displayed as bait to hoodwink attackers. Castro’s hidden air force struck the invading landing squad on the morning of the attack as T33 jets chased away supply ships. The 5th Battalion refused to disembark under Cuban fire as the small but pugnacious air force dealt a fatal blow to the morale of mercenary paratroopers.   

The main reason for Cuban victory, however, can only be explained through the achievements of the revolution. By 1961, great strides had already been made in favour of the people: agrarian reform and land redistribution to 100,000 tenant farmers and sharecroppers; nationalisation of large industrial and commercial corporations and banks; literacy campaigns; reduction in rates for electricity and telephones; urban reform and house construction; the rent-control act; and public beaches – previously off limits to black people – were opened to all.



Visit our Bay of Pigs 50th Anniversary Page

Special thanks to the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the author of this article, CSC Campaigns Officer, Dan Smith. The full article can be read here.

Photographs courteous of Raul Corrales, Giron: The Glorious Days of the Bay of Pigs Battle (Aediciones Aurelia, 2007)Via CSC UK